Industry pledges to do more to address the concerns of local communities impacted by aviation noise
Mon 12 Oct 2015 – The air transport industry must do more to address the concerns of local communities about aviation noise and work together to find solutions if it is to maintain the support of governments and the general public as part of its licence to operate, says Angela Gittens, Director General of Airports Council International (ACI). The trade association for the world’s airports has joined with the Civil Air Navigation Services Organisation (CANSO) to publish a best-practice guide that examines the challenges as well as the methods airport operators and air navigation service providers (ANSPs) can use to manage and reduce aviation noise. A session on community engagement at the recent Global Sustainable Aviation Summit focused on why the issue continues to fester with local residents despite industry efforts and quieter aircraft.
The 60-page guide, ‘Managing the Impacts of Aviation Noise’, which is to be rolled out to airports and air traffic management organisations across the world, sets out to provide key principles and recommended actions for better community interactions, including effective communication, transparency and education.
It reviews four current approaches for managing noise: reducing noise at the source, land use planning, noise-reducing operational procedures and operating restrictions. Operational procedures can include techniques such as tailored arrivals, continuous descent operations, arrival or departure path alternation and managing thrust.
“The aviation industry has achieved substantial and measurable reductions in noise over the last 50 years through a mixture of airframe and engine technology and operational efforts,” said CANSO Director General Jeff Poole. “But the problem still exists and we must make every effort to mitigate the impact of aviation noise for people on the ground, especially those living around airports. Key to our success in reducing noise is partnership and joint action among airports, airlines and air traffic management, and engaging with local communities, to deliver measurable results.”
The guide also includes 11 case studies that highlight actual experience in dealing with airport noise issues, along with solutions and examples of stakeholder collaboration.
“These real-world examples bring to life the challenges being faced around the world as growth in air travel,” said Mairi Barton, Executive General Manager Corporate and Industry Affairs for Airservices Australia, which has a lead role in managing aircraft noise in the country.
Four of the case studies come from Australia. “While these highlight the innovative approach we’ve taken in reducing the impacts of aircraft noise, we also recognise that it is only by working together in collaboration with regulators, industry and communities, and by working across country boundaries, that we can truly address this global challenge,” she said.
Chairing the community engagement session at the Geneva industry conference, Jonathon Counsell, Head of Sustainability at the International Airlines Group, said there were a number of challenges in dealing with local communities over aircraft noise, including:
The disjoint in areas of impact, where it is not necessarily those residents living closest to airports who are the most annoyed;
The trust deficit in which promises may have been made by airports but not kept;
Gaps in channels of communication between airport and residents;
The technical nature of the subject whereby residents were “blinded with science” over contours, noise metrics, etc; and
Misinterpretation of government policy, the ICAO ‘balanced approach’ to noise and airport operating restrictions.
Tim Johnson, Director of the Aviation Environment Federation (AEF), the UK-based NGO that comprises over 100 community and environmental groups, said there was often a sense of injustice felt by residents over noise and expansion issues and people were more annoyed and less tolerant than they used to be. Groups were now becoming well-resourced, more effective and more sophisticated in challenging airports, often using social media as a communication tool, he said.
“There may be a clear industry rationale in making improvements to air capacity and technology performance, for example with airspace trials, but many on the outside don’t see beyond a suspicion that it is all about having more aircraft pass over their heads in the future. This is not a good basis for trust and conversation,” he said.
“There is no magic answer that applies to every airport in the world and it is clear that you need flexibilities for airports and communities to find solutions that work best for them. Some procedures that are followed in airspace trials and objectives set for airspace change proposals don’t always serve the best interests of airports and communities well. Regulators also need to be more flexible and open. People want to know how long airspace trials are going to last, which isn’t always clear. In the UK, we have gone into some trials without much consultation and the scale of the opposition, because people thought they were imposed on them, has led to trials being scrapped. I understand that although you generally don’t want to pre-warn the public in order to genuinely test reaction, you are still better involving them at an early stage to explain the justification for the trials.
“Above all else, communities want respite so, for example, if you are going to have concentrated PBN flight tracks you have to offer them this.”
Paul Hooper, Professor of Environmental Management and Sustainability at Manchester Metropolitan University, said there was a lot of evidence to show that just decreasing aircraft noise levels is not going to solve the problem. “What we are finding through detailed interviews and surveys is that overall, the trend is to quieter aircraft but more annoyed people. Industry must engage with that fact and there needs to be a degree of honesty in the conversation.”
He said using aggregated noise metrics such as contours when talking to communities allows for mistrust to open up as the public, which are unlikely to understand them, will feel they are possibly being deceived. “What they want to know, in simple terms, is how many events, when and how noisy. If you can find some common language, you can have a dialogue. You can then have discussions around the benefits as well as the negative impacts of the aviation industry and negotiate on its licence to grow.”
Mike Rikard-Bell of airport noise management company Brüel and Kjær said the thinking over decades was that by reducing noise exposure through improvements in technology then you would see a plummeting in community annoyance. “Of course, that has proved to be untrue and is not what we’re seeing around the world. In fact, what has happened is a partial decorrelation of the two. We are seeing very different dynamics now and if we don’t change the paradigm, we will choke the industry.”
Australia’s Aircraft Noise Ombudsman, Ron Brent, said any conversation with communities had to be on the basis of understanding, and information was key. “Firstly, it is important to understand that the perception of noise is the reality, that is to say there is no measure that says x number of decibels causes x amount of annoyance on people. Reactions can be different.
“Secondly, it is the perceptions that define the understanding of noise but more importantly it is the understanding of noise that shapes perceptions, so that if you hear noise that you believe to be gratuitous then that is going to be a problem to you. On the other hand if you have to listen to noise that you understand to be inevitable, you may not like it, but you are much more likely to accept it.”
And the way to shape better understanding, he suggested, is by providing comprehensible information that is tailored to its audience and backed by good data and analysis.
He said there was an unexplained anomaly peculiar to the aviation sector whereby one person complaining, say, 10 times was logged as 10 separate complaints, so distorting the picture. “It’s a totally meaningless way of looking at the data as it buries any useful way of looking at complaints,” he said. “I pressed hard with Airservices Australia to change the way they count and manage complaints. Reporting should be based on the number of complainants, not the number of complaints.”
He said complainants should be engaged on a rational basis, which involved listening, acknowledging and accepting, being honest, learning to say ‘no’ properly and informing in comprehensible terms. What did not help, he added, was to inform complainants aircraft have been getting quieter over a period of 40 years, which was irrelevant to a complainant who may have moved to the area five years previously, telling the complainant he was wrong or getting involved in detail over decibel measurements.
“What we are dealing with is people and we should see the issue as what the problem people have with aircraft noise. That is very different from trying to define in decibel or contour terms how loud the noise is. Not that we should discount these measurements as they are a very useful tool, but they are useless when engaging with the public.”